In the last two weeks, it’s been hard to miss the sudden turn among centrist punditry–the kind of people who presume to be kingmakers and political tastemakers, the viziers of the voters–towards trying to knock Bernie Sanders down before he surges his way into the nomination.
One of the most common themes in this turn (for example, in David Frum’s well-argued essay in the Atlantic) is that Sanders has yet to be tested politically, that no one has really attacked him yet in the way that the Republicans will attack him, that he is not electable because he has so many skeletons of some kind in his closet.
I think there are many assertions in these kinds of arguments that are questionable. For the most part, they seem to me to be a kind of zombie discourse rising out of the graveyard of the Cold War, that all a liberal or centrist politician needed to do to undercut a more progressive rival once was to hint darkly that the rival had ties to Communism–that they’d met approvingly with Fidel Castro or that they had said something nice once about the work of Marx or that they’d shown up to a meeting of socialists. Frequently this worked in concert with tying the candidate to some form of non-Marxist radical militancy–they’d been in a march with the Black Panthers! etc.–or to the antiwar movement (Hanoi Jane!).
It feels like a pretty OK, Boomer move now. I don’t think a lot of voters even recognize the allusive suggestions or have any real reflexive responses to the implications and nudges involved. Or even care much if someone comes right out and says, “Dude’s a Communist!” In part, as Frum notes (and most other hand-wringing centrists do not), even being a Communist affirms the degree to which Sanders seems to be about something other than just a career trajectory for a well-trained technocrat, that he is committed to an actual cause.
Let me not go too far into a tit-for-tat argument on these points, however. Let us just presume for the sake of argument that the Republican attack machine is going to go at Sanders full throttle and that he has yet to face any of the force of that assault, and that until he is thus attacked, we can say little about how well he will fare.
The more important observation at this point is that none of the Democrats have faced the full force of the contemporary Republican attack machine and none of them have demonstrated their capacity to survive it. I would argue that if Sanders seems unready, then all of his Democratic rivals are vastly more unready. And that all Democrats are now equally vulnerable to the way that the Republican Party now conducts itself politically, because the Republican Party no longer has any constraints on its behavior. Neither accuracy nor probity matters any longer. Legality is unimportant to a lawless party. The preservation of democratic norms and structures doesn’t matter to a party that no longer believes that the opposition has a right to govern if elected. The contemporary GOP and its base believe that by definition, only they have political legitmacy.
The Democrats are still preparing to run in an election, while their opponents are preparing to go to war.
To get some sense of what is now involved, look at what’s happening to John Bolton. He has gone from someone who was appointed by the President and trusted to provide counsel and make policy, who was a darling of conservatives and a frequent visitor to Fox News, to “Book Deal Bolton”, trailed by viral falsehoods about his financial motivations, his conspiratorial loyalty to the “deep state”, and so on. That the President chose such a person (as he did so many others who have now left his service) casts no negative light on him among his followers, nor does their former estimation of Bolton have any remnant force in their minds. Conservatives who loved and admired John Bolton two or four or eight years ago now profess to have always hated him and regarded him as a dangerous, even treasonous, figure.
Look at Biden. Twenty years ago, if you were the President and you knew that a potential rival in the upcoming election had a ne’er-do-well son who had gotten a job that smelled like nepotism and influence, you would have held on to that until after he was nominated and then found operatives far enough away from you to leak and rumor that into national news coverage. (Of course, twenty years ago, if you’d had a swarm of nepotistic trash trailing at your heels and had been the product of nepotism, you might have thought twice about making it an issue at all.) But this President and his goons decided to go ahead and start a Constitutional crisis just to play out a single rumor.
None of the Democrats have really faced anything like this at a national scale. What is about to happen will make the treatment of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton look comparatively restrained. Our mass communications are essentially completely porous to malicious falsehoods from a wide variety of interested parties with money–I fully expect that this will be the first election where deepfake images are used in a sustained way, among many other things. Our mainstream media are mostly still easily manipulated or fooled by (or authorially involved in) the circulation of information intended to “change the frame” on candidates and issues. Almost a third of the citizenry are epistemologically barricaded against evidence that contradicts their current political commitments.
People who grew up in earlier political dispensations where “dirty tricks” meant things as quaint as getting Muskie to cry on camera or sending out anonymous circulars alleging that John McCain had a black child out of wedlock think that certain political candidates have certain kinds of vulnerabilities that they have to prepare for tactically and strategically, and that some candidates have too many vulnerabilities based on some actual past conduct and thus are “unelectable”. Wake up. We are in a new era. Against the hate machine that has been forged over the last two decades and now is armed and fully operational, all candidates have all vulnerabilities at all times. And all candidates have the potential to soar over the grinding, indiscriminate brutalization on offer: the US did elect, after all, a black President whose middle name was “Hussein”, something that the same centrist punditry that today says Sanders is unelectable then said made Obama unelectable. Much as they said Trump was unelectable.
There are two ways to cope, I think. One of them is Obama’s: to be above it all. I don’t think any of the current candidates have that available to them. It’s what O’Rourke and Booker, among others, tried.
The alternative is to go to war too. As Frum notes, that takes some of what Sanders has: advocating simple, elemental and dramatic policy ideas. It also takes not putting up with any bullshit, whether it’s media bullshit or the bullshit of the hate machine. It takes authenticity–meaning, something that comes from the candidate directly, not from a bunch of consultants and pollsters. It takes being raw rather than cooked.
If Sanders is untested in his ability to do that well against the ferocity and intensity of what’s coming, his rivals are vastly more untested. Or they’ve already failed: Biden’s meandering, vacillating confusion about what to do in the face of the attack from the White House and his clueless nostalgia for a consensus politics that was jointly murdered by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in the 1990s is a vastly greater sign of unreadiness. Is there any sign that Pete Buttigieg is remotely prepared for the homophobia that will come his way? Or probably more potently, for the absolutely brutal and sick attacks that will come on his education and career trajectory? He can barely cope with relatively polite criticism about that from the left of the Democratic Party. Is Amy Klobuchar ready for open misogyny, for a reprise of the “unlikeability” attacks on Clinton? Warren already dropped the ball on the “Pocahontas” attack; she’s been a bit more deft since on other fronts, but still.
And these are all predictable vectors of attack, in that older political sense of ‘vulnerability’ and electability. But I don’t think any of them are ready for open falsehoods to be circulating straight from the President and elected members of the House and Senate, for the floodgates of hate unrestrained by shame or truth. The only way to be ready is to show that you understand that this is how politics is now, and to show the determination to win in order to save democracy itself. That urgency and intensity of purpose has yet to show itself on the Democratic side, for the most part–and if anyone has shown it, it’s Sanders and Warren, the candidates that the conventional wisdoms holds to be most unelectably unready.